Third Sectors and finding meanings

political correctness

Much of my career has been spent either working in or for the not-for-profit industry sector. In recent rimes this has often been collectively known as the Third Sector, as opposed to the Public or Private Sectors, in case you were wondering. Although the term is not universally popular within the sector itself, it is a useful catchall.

This is a complicated arena to work in because of the vast and varied type of organisations that operate in this area. Outsiders mostly think of this sector as the charity sector, but most not-for-profits are not charities and could not be under UK law. But at least charities have clear sets of rules and procedures to follow. A situation addressed by the 2006 Charities Act. Before that registered charities had to operate under a morass of regulations developed since an Elizabethan 1601 statute. We might be a charitable nation, but it seems this is not always reflected by our Parliament. We had better not hold our breath for more charity legislation, 500 years is a long time without air.

Most of my charity experience has been within the area of education or working abroad where the definitions are less restrictive. The writing and editing challenges here are nearly all associated with not breaching the rules and being mindful of what charities can and cannot say.

In the UK much of the Third Sector is political and embraces think-tanks, pressure groups and movements seeking empowerment for one issue or another. Each interest party has its own no-go areas in language as well as having to keep a weather eye on changes in what is generally acceptable within developing social dialogue.

In my view there is rather too much emphasis put on the real and imagined historical minutiae of various words. This is because it can become a distraction from the issue at hand. It has also led to many people developing negative associations with the phrase ‘political correctness,’ which while well-meaning, if not necessary, tends to have an Orwellian ring to it.

Word usage and phrases tend to be subject to fashion, if that is not too controversial to say, and often someone only has to question the use of a given word for it to become tainted.

In January 1999 an aide to the Mayor of Washington DC was forced to resign over his use of the word niggardly, meaning picky or mean-spirited, because of its phonetic similarity to the N-word. It was a misunderstanding that was thankfully resolved, but it demonstrates how sensitive this issue can be.

One regional police force was so out of touch that it wrote its race policy from a poorly researched Internet article and ended up banning the phrase ‘nitty-gritty.’ Most linguists now agree that the word has its origins firmly within the 20th century and does not have the once-touted slave conations. However, one might think that organisations would be better served actually developing better social skills than second guessing language, but that is another topic.

The lesson to take from this is that words are emotive and intellectual arguments are no substitute for not causing the offence in the first place. Third Sector writing can be a minefield where one needs to be streetwise as well word wise.

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